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Keith Strudler: Don’t Drink (Or Swim In) The Water

It is certainly not the end of the beginning. Perhaps it is the beginning of the end. Or maybe it’s neither, but simply a series of unfortunate events. Regardless, this has been yet another bad run for the tarnished Olympic movement and the governing IOC, whose final letter may as well stand for crisis.

Or, maybe it should stand for contaminated, as in the water in Rio is far too contaminated to use for sporting events. Last week it was reported that Rio’s water, both waterways close to land and even further offshore, are basically a giant toilet bowl, reflective of the raw sewage that flows into them. Tests by independent agencies found the water contained 1.7 million times the amount of certain disease-causing viruses than would be acceptable in the US or Europe. This is really bad news if your sport is triathlon, open water swimming, or sailing. Or, if you just want to go to the beach while you’re there. It’s a reality already for German Olympic sailor Erik Heil, who contracted MRSA, which I now know is a flesh eating bacteria, after a pre-Olympic test event in Rio last summer. Brazilian Olympic officials appear less alarmed than, say, the swimmers, releasing what seems to be nearly daily and contradictory statements about both testing procedure and the general heath of their water. But while it’s hard to make sense of the science, it’s fairly easy to deduce that water at the 2016 Olympic Games will be the equivalent of an apocalyptic water park.

That, of course, seems unreasonable for what’s supposedly the world’s most prominent and exorbitant sporting festival. With price tags in the tens of billions, we’d assume that, first and foremost, Olympic organizers could create sporting venues free of flesh eating diseases. That may expect too much. We’d also assume athletes would have air conditioning during their multi-week summer stay. But athletes who want so much as two-star accommodation will have to pay for that luxury, as event organizers cut costs to keep the financially strapped nation above water – which is pretty important, given the condition.

This is yet another knock against the Olympic movement, which has moved with the grace of a drunk Rhinoceros in recent years. Bloated budgets, questionable host cites, and drug epidemics are just a few of the IOC’s missteps. That’s led to the predictable this week, as Hamburg, Germany, has withdrawn its bid for the 2024 Summer Games, joining Boston in a display of fiscal austerity.  It also joins four cities that pulled out of the winter 2022 competition for the same reasons. And let’s be honest, the recent events in Paris haven’t encouraged any new takers, particularly in Western Europe of hosting any foreseeable Olympic Games ,especially given the impossible security costs and liabilities.

So the IOC finds itself fighting the war on Olympiad on two fronts – and I’m being generous. First, they have to fix their current problems, starting with making sure the water in Brazil doesn’t work like a scene from a low budget horror movie. Second, they’ve got to change the future, making sure countries across the world still buy into the concept. It’s like trying to get a new job in finance while you in court for insider trading.

So, what should, or even can the Olympics do? While of whole lot of this is the IOC’s fault and traces back to any number of the seven sins, in all fairness, some of this is simply out their control. Like, the IOC can’t really corral terrorism, holy wars, global recessions, and a world map that changes by the hour. As fun as it is to bash the people that make scandals like cookies, they operate in a simply impossible economic and sociological environment. When the NFL wants to kill a drug problem, they fire people. When the IOC tries to do the same, they might start a world war. So we should cut them some slack.

That said, now, more than ever, is the time for IOC leaders to take a more, instead of less active approach to event management, which has always been their out. No longer is it acceptable for IOC brass to use company lines and let, in this case, the Rio folks to clean their toilet of an ocean. Nor can ask developing nations to bring AC units like they’re heading to a college dorm. Now is the time for the IOC to take considerable action. Which could mean pulling some events, moving them to another country, or pulling the whole thing – and taking the blame and responsibility for the organization’s mistake of giving this to Rio in the first place.

In the past, when things have gone south at the Olympics, the IOC leaders defer to national hosts, or sports federations, or simply claim to be too apolitical to take a real stand. Those days are over. As the inmates brutishly run the asylum previously known as the world’s greatest sporting festival, the IOC must make a real decision. Either grow a backbone and take decisive action, or watch the modern games end like their ancient forefathers. It’s their choice. The end of the beginning or, as we may sadly suspect, the beginning of the end.

Keith Strudler is the director of the Marist College Center for Sports Communication and an associate professor of communication. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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